First Kennedy Assassination


 Who conspired to schedule me

into another high-school gym class--

those smelly shirts and socks,

sweaty jock straps, damp towels,

those non-adjustable shower jets--

the day

the Friday-morning news exploded

with static over our PA system?

"The President has been shot."

and I thought,

"the bullet must be in his leg.

He can't die!"


In Southern California

November Santa Ana winds all weekend

shredded palm fronds and bark

from eucalyptus--

two years gone by

since smoke and flames

swallowed the opening of our school

with grief.


Metal banisters at home

shocked the wrong choice in carpets,

as downstairs, we plugged in the TV

to see our President on the screen

tell us about missiles in Cuber,


and again, that same weather,

the same importance of a TV

switched on in time

to watch Jack Ruby kill Oswald.

(It might have been Gunsmoke, or a future

Star Trek, certainly some fiction,

a Warren's error of commission:

the bad guys died without confession.)


Sworn-in Johnson on a jet plane,

a black D.C. procession, the reruns from Dallas,

protracted mourning,

General De Gaulle towering

above a stately veiled widow,

and a young son--live--

as we were,

waved goodbye.

                             from Searchings for Modesto (1993)



                                                                        for Betty La Duke

                        One one-hundred-and-eighty-degree

                                twist of the map

                            sets hemispheres on end,

                        veers them at the Southern Cross.


                        Canada lies down on her shatter Arctic shield;

                        Alaska casts his life-preserver Aleutians

                            at Kamchatka, who is also sinking on ice.

                        Sprawled out on solid ground, the U.S.A.

                            may still maintain a monolithic hope,

                            but sleeps again, supine in dreams--

                        his Florida swollen erect with fantasies.


                        All else eludes the sinews of his arms,

                           thinned down by sugar, coffee, rum

                                (only to mention the legal drugs).

                        Cuba begins to warp the other way;

                        her neighbors imitate the rhythm, dancing

                             with swinging hips.

                        Mexico gives birth out of her horn of plenty.

                        Workers, leaning on their hoes,

                            fly off in songs from Chiapas.


                        Their music barely touches the English language.

                        Every floating distance, loosened from Panama,

                            rounds a new cape, aiming for the Falklands

                                and space-station Antarctica,

                            where fleets of icebergs launch themselves,

                        people with penguins on the Humboldt Current.


                        So that's what he means to be an Amazon:

                            inverting tributaries, exploding Andes,

                                speeding past evolution on Galapagos islands.

                        Quena music will tame that spirit,

                            rising another octave to a different Machu Picchu.


                        The names of those countries

                        can no longer be deciphered.

                        Everything is upside-down!

                        In such air, they're broken clouds

                                        but free from misconceptions,

                                still breathing when lungs falter,

                        clearings after storms.                           from Searchings For Modesto (1993),

                                                                            first published in The Greenfield Review (Winter/Spring, 1987)



Pyramid Inclines

                                                                                "Walking upright hazards any venture." Jane Glazer


                    The distortions,

                        the wrestings of my mind, when I saw

                    from a single-engine prop-plane

                            my parents' first house:

                    all shingled roof, squat stucco walls,

                        listing red brick chimney, and glass windows askew

                            winking back at me.

                        And so many others like it

                    between Bundy and sloping Sawtelle

                        off National Boulevard--

                    flat land near the Santa Monica airport

                        we had departed,

                            where celery fields once bent furrows for the fog.



                    That plane's engine still rumbles

                        loud enough to fly me

                            over thirty years--

                    tilting wings, biasing views,

                        of other climbs. The tallest building in Los Angeles

                            was City Hall--all umpteen stories--white stone

                    afraid of earthquakes.

                        But mountains slanted roads,

                            improved perspectives: windings up Mulholland

                    past fire trails--we never found the end--jackknives up Mt. Wilson.



                    Since then we've lost our early fears.

                        Switchbacks waive breathers.

                    Steel supports any imagined story.

                        I slept soundly the night

                            my parents worried about the chimney

                        threshed from an underground center

                    somewhere near Bakersfield.

                        Oblique tales stressed the importance,

                    and I lean now, breathing on plastic windows

                                over jet engines

                        or finding the landmarks: the Seattle Space Needle

                    with its revolving restaurant, the Eiffel in Paris, Seville's Giralda,

                        the Top of the Mark in San Francisco,

                                Cologne Cathedral Spiral, Machu Picchu,

                        my grade school's tiled tower

                                  Mrs. Satrang let me scale alone in a June fog,

                    Hurricane Ridge (my Mt. Snowden), Half Dome for Nevada Falls,

                        and Teotihuacan--those pyramid inclines

                            we ran up, puffing to the top.                          from Searchings For Modesto (1993)


Fin de Siecle

         for Martha


                When Rick Blue, six-foot-six, died young, none of us

                    carried his casket. Presbyterian, the family chose

                a memorial in the Palisades

                    overlooking conference grounds freshly plowed

                into our high school. After the predestined

                    eulogies, Monty, his father, a big man himself,

                needed two men to lift him out of his pew.

                    He staggered. He stumbled in the narthex, howled

                out a grief all of us held down, howled out

                    a grief only his own.



                In Mary, Queen of Scotland, you'll turn him up

                    on some has-been channel, grieving--black, grey, white.

                Our first TV. My mother pointed, "There's Monty Blue!"

                    touching John Knox on the screen. He was holding

                a thick book in one hand, raising high the other,

                    and cursing down (between used-car commercials)

                Popery and the English Church.



                A true sermon splashes me back in the pool.

                    From ten to fourteen, I'm slow of growth.

                Rick touches bottom in places I dive head first in.

                    He lifts me onto a raft, and, long-armed,

                jerks me toward him, pushes me out--

                    full extension: arms, rope--jerks me in again.

                It beats any ride at POP.



                Pacific Ocean Park.

                    Who ever cared for Neptune's Kingdom?

                The Hall of Mirrors? Steve Zweiback explained one.

                "Centrifugal force: when the walls spin fast enough,

                    they drop the floor, and you hang in air there,

                        whirled to the wall." Enough

                to make anyone trumpet. Enough

                    to make someone lose a lunch. But locked

                in slow plastic bubbles passing clear over ocean--

                        that really scared me:

                "What if the machinery breaks down? We'd suffocate.

                 We'd drown. Let's choose the roller coaster instead."



                While his wife, Mary, nursed for my father,

                    Rick engineered at USC: drafting board, T-square,

                mechanical pencil. Those regimens channeled

                    hours--round games otherwise passing

                        continuous in my mind:

                Michigan rummy or pinochle by evening. For a time,

                He, Mary, and I melded.



                But all people fall out.

                     Rick developed cancer--just like his mother.

                He showed me her portrait once--

                    fin de siecle I say now,

                    maybe even Whistler, black and white tones.

                By then we hardly ever saw him. Writing,

                    I recognize: we're growing fin de siecle;

                Rick couldn't reach it. He died in '61, or was it '62?



                One last scene. Christmas. A week before he died.

                    Annie Hruby, also dead now, drove us. Mary Blue,

                her children, inside their wreathed door. (Ask Martha,

                    Annie's sister, about that house's anger.)

                We entered Rick's room, saw feet, long legs,

                    swollen beyond white sheets. His face,

                        nearly skull, smiled,

                    recognized our repulsion. His arm

                held toward us. Each of us touched it. No words.

                        We finally dropped from his grasp.

                That part's impossible to right.            from Searchings for Modesto (1993)